My latest @Inc piece is available, this time on areas to be cognizant of before you jump into new markets or projects outside your core focus in small businesses. Hope you enjoy:
Business history is filled with examples of companies successfully entering new marketsand becoming leaders.
Apple and smartphones. Netflix expanding from mailing DVDs to video streaming. LinkedIn becoming a dominant player in online recruiting. Tesla’s decision to leap into the market for battery–based power systems for homes, businesses and utilities.
Had the idea for this one during a yoga class the other day. It starts out like this:
This may sound a little surprising, but yoga and business have a lot in common. Yoga teaches us about depth and focus. But as I’ve learned, yoga can also provide valuable lessons about how to successfully run a business. And not just in regards to emotional IQ. Here are some of the top lessons that I’ve brought to how I do business from my yoga practice.
My first article on Entrepreneur is out! This is a piece on lessons about running a business that I learned from… Superheroes. So continuing the overarching theme of linking business, technology, and what we in those realms are actually interested in! These articles evolve once they go to the publisher, which is fun for me to watch as well. Anyway, I hope you enjoy. As usual, a sample, and a photo (many of these are for my own library, btw).
“Batman v Superman” set a record in late March for the biggest superhero movie international opening ever (negative reviews aside, as parodied in the “Sad Affleck” video that’s closing in on 20 million hits as of this writing). Superheroes are serious business, in more ways than you might think.
Comics, movies and TV shows have taught me a bunch of lessons. For example, growing up without much diversity in my community, I learned about racism from reading the X-Men. But the most surprising lessons relate to the business world.
A list of some lessons that can be taught by a dozen of our favorite superheroes:
I started playing Dungeons and Dragons in about the 5th or 6th grade. I didn’t get good at it for awhile. And once I got good at it, I didn’t play much longer (insert reference to “The Best Days of My Life” here). Along the way, I learned a few lessons that until I got older, I didn’t realize were great life lessons. I also learned a lot that helped me later in life in the business world. Here’s a few you may or may not agree with (and yes, the image is of a box sitting on my table at home:).
Build a great campaign and then if the game is good, expect your players to totally break it. In business, you create a situation where customers give you money. You build processes, procedures, marketable packages, and teams. These prepare you for the massive onslaught of all the moneys that are going to come in. You need to be able to build a product, sell the product, and potentially service the product long-term. Maybe you sell it, maybe you don’t. But if you’re not ready for the sales to happen, you won’t sell that much. How much work do you put into building a campaign, or game, in Dungeons and Dragons, if the characters are just going to go right off your script? How much effort do you put into building a business if the customers are just going to buy something from you that is completely different than what you thought you were going to sell? These are the same questions, and there’s no right answer to either (although there are tons of wrong answers). But understanding that when momentum strikes in a game and if you don’t have a good campaign built that is flexible, you won’t maintain that momentum, is key.
If you have to stop the game to look up the rules, your momentum is lost. Games got way more fun as we better understood the rules. When you have to stop and look something up, the attention of the gamers can get lost on things like potato chips. Similarly, the attention of the market is lost when you have to stop a business transaction to review contracts, train employees, rebuild processes, and reengineer product. The better all employees are trained, the more likely they will respond quickly and appropriately to the market and not have their attention wander when you have to look up how to properly figure out what saving throw is required to keep from getting crispy from the breath of a red dragon.
Have fun! There’s not much reason to play Dungeons and Dragons alone. If the game isn’t fun, you will invariably not have many people come back for a second or third campaign. In business, employees need to be engaged. Products and companies these days need to have a personality. Sure, you might make a great widget, but if it isn’t fun to come to work and make, sell, or support that widget, then you’re going to have a much harder time getting those things done. Fun brands, like fun games, drive engagement – and engagement amplifies your spend.
You gain experience incrementally, but it shows in bursts. In Dungeons and Dragons, you gain experience points for doing things. When you accumulate enough, you go up a level. At that point, you might get a higher score for an ability, you might pick up proficiency with a new weapon, or you might get more hit points. Heck, according to your character class, a lot of cool stuff can happen. I find that in business, we slowly work our way towards a new level. We learn lessons along the way (like a Level 1 Cleric learns not to tackle a blue dragon alone). I was recently in a meeting where someone said that a department had reached a new level. In business, you kinda’ work your way there, learning lessons, training staff, expanding, contracting, etc. But all of a sudden, you realize “holy crap, we can now cast fireball spells!” When did it happen? Sometimes you don’t even know… But it’s usually obvious to everyone that a gap was closed, a threshold crossed, and it’s time to start building momentum for the next level, tackling more difficult monsters, arming up with better weapons, and maybe even picking up some new NPCs along the way!
To sell, you need to be confident. When it’s your turn in a game, you may talk as your character would (I’ve heard some of the worst accents ever in these games). The more confident you are, the more the game is immersive. Without confidence, a Dungeon Master is likely to get walked all over. Most jobs in a company have way more of a sales component that most employees want to admit.
Some players are just going to be more engaged than others, no matter what you do. Different people want different things out of a game of Dungeons and Dragons, their jobs, and this life in general. When I was taking MBA classes at Cornell, they referred to this as different people having their own motivators. These motivators influence how impactful various initiatives are. For example, some respond well to financial incentives. Others to social interactions or pats on the back. Some players have a math test the next day and are going to miss a game. Others are ridiculously into the game. Just because you put a lot of work into developing a campaign doesn’t mean that others are going to be into each and every game. Everyone will have more fun if the expectations for engagement with a given initiative are tempered and any involvement is looked at positively.
Don’t dominate the game. Everyone should have a say in how games go. There’s going to be natural alphas in any group. But try and give everyone ample time to play and talk about what their character is doing. And if some people don’t have that much to say, that’s fine. Just routinely return to them and give them the opportunity. This is how a game, meeting, brainstorming session, town hall, etc can be run. If one player is dominating the game, it’s a great idea to step in and keep them from doing so. How you go about doing so will become a skill that you hone for decades. And try not to be that person. Another skill you may hone for the rest of your life…
When the 20 sided dice goes missing, it was probably the paladin that took it. Yup, stop blaming the thief. The person who prefers to play a Lawful Good paladin might just be living vicariously and might not be the eagle scout everyone thought they were. Don’t jump to conclusions when things happen in the professional world. Gather all of the information. Especially when there’s an accusation to be made. When you’re trying to isolate a problem with a process or product, perform your due diligence. Root cause analysis, etc. Of course, you’ll need that 1d20 back eventually the game is to go on…
You are invariably going to outgrow the game. People don’t stay in the same position forever. You need to build a growth path. You don’t want your level 5 Drow Elf Ranger to stay level 5 forever. You want to be prepared for how the game will play out with higher level characters, and maybe even keep a funnel of lower level characters and employees who can work their way up into higher positions. And when a player decides to leave the game, you need a succession plan. It’s easier in Dungeons and Dragons than in business. Sure, you can switch classes, just like employees can switch departments, but it’s a pretty linear path for most in the game. In the real world, everyone will have something different they want out of a job and it’s the job of a servant leader to help them get there, even if it means helping them soar to new heights at another organization. It’s best though, if you can provide a growth plan that keeps your awesome people in house, of course… But sometimes a player’s going to go off to college. Maybe they’ll come over and take over as the Dungeon Master when they come home though. So stay in touch. Also stay in touch because you just plain like them and want to be friends…
Morale is optional in Dungeons and Dragons, but not in the business world. Morale was a slightly more advanced feature for Dungeon Masters. Basically, if a creature or retainer fails morale check (2d6), it will disengage from a battle and retreat. If it sucks to work at your company, or on your team, your employees will do the same. If you don’t work on morale, you won’t find yourself with talented employees for long.
What happens when you turn a bag of holding inside out? Some things, you’ll never know. But, you can’t wait until you know every detail in business. You see, the cost to gather tooooo much intel can outweigh the opportunity cost of jumping into something. Every now and then you have to trust your gut. But, when you do, maybe turning that bag of holding opens a black hole and ends the game, or maybe it takes you to a whole new level.
It’s about the journey, not the destination. Sure, you could rush through a dungeon, or a forest of kobolds in record time. But why? Killing all the kobolds is going to get you experience points, which add up until you get to the point where you can tackle golems and orcs and dragons. At work, try and be thorough. I find that I can get 90 percent of a project done in no time. That last 10 percent is the hardest, and where I learn the most. It’s also where the polish can be seen by others. You obviously need to complete projects, but it’s the journey towards all of your goals (the projects, the learning, etc) that really matter. And if you’re rushing through everything, it will show. Plus, there’s usually a low chance you’ll get some kind of magic item off a kobold…
Eventually, your fighter has to work on more traits than just strength. The easiest character to play is usually a fighter. You’re just kindof a tank. You can walk into a room and fight and kill monsters. In Dungeons and Dragons, each character has a number of different abilities. These include things like Dexterity, which helps a thief to pick locks and all characters to avoid getting hit. There’s also intelligence, wisdom, constitution, charisma and strength. Each class of character will need different abilities to be higher than others. And as you level up you receive adjustments you can add to abilities. Naturally, a player will work on the abilities for their class first. For example, if you have a fighter, you’ll increase strength and constitution (which gives you more hit points), or if you have a thief you’ll work on dexterity. But, as the character progresses, you’ll invariably work on different abilities to unlock more advanced features of your class. The same is true at work. Let’s say you write code for a living (which many consider the magic-user of the business world these days). Eventually, you may choose to manage a team, become a scrum master, or manage products. For each of these, it will greatly help if you’ve dedicated a little time to working on your charisma ability. So while public speaking and management classes might not seem all that awesome for a code monkey, well, they will suit you well later in the game of your career.
The more junk you have the slower you move. Each item that your character finds in the game will weigh you down a little. Eventually, when you find items, you’ll have to choose what you carry and what you leave behind. And sometimes, you’ll find yourself leaving behind things that you fought huge battles with monsters to attain. It’s hard to let go of things, but sometimes you have to. At work, you might have projects that you want to continue with but have to let them go to move into a new position. You might have equipment that you love but can’t keep. You might have data on your computer (or phone or iPad) that’s just wasting space. Keep in mind, that there’s a weight to that data, even if only mentally. Learn to let things go. Sometimes the character simply can’t move to the next room with a massive bag of treasure on their back.
Energy draining monsters are the worst! As mentioned earlier in this article, once you reach a certain number of experience points (pretty much double from the previous level up) you get to move up in levels. However, occasionally you find undead monsters that can drain experience points from you. Ghosts, ghasts, ghouls and other monsters are the total suck. They can set you back pretty far. And sometimes permanently. We all know people that just suck the life right out of you at work. They always talk about how they tried an initiative and the initiative didn’t work, so they don’t want to try anything else. They always go back to the good old days and these days everything sucks. These energy draining attitudes must be vanquished. Regrettably, in Dungeons and Dragons, that often requires magic items. Positivity and strategy are the magic weapons in the corporate world. Results speak for themselves, so they are the vorpal sword of the board room!
The best business happens in a pub. Yup, you’re not gonna’ buy that crazy Staff of Wielding in a regular-old blacksmith’s shop. Instead, sometimes you do your best business in a bar. Or a golf course. Or at church. When you’re in these places, be you, but don’t be afraid to let business happen where it happens!
Teams need to be diverse. A party of 6 fighters really isn’t going to make it far. Nor 6 clerics. You need a couple of fighters, a cleric (to heal everyone), a magic user (maybe an elf), a thief (likely a halfling), etc. A well rounded adventuring party is key to the success of a campaign. The same is true for many teams at work. Different experiences and different backgrounds bring different ideas and perspectives. And bring everyones game up a notch. Of course, sometimes your half-orc rogue will spar with your paladin. But the team is better for having everyone together.
Sometimes you have to retreat. A 4th level barbarian walks into a bar… It sounds like a joke, until it ends “and get shot with lightning by a level 36 drow lich-king. A/B testing, pivoting, fail fast. Have an open mind. Be creative, but if your initiatives aren’t working out, get out of the bar, before you get lit up. Having said that, let things play out. Sometimes the lich-king just hits you with a riddle and might give you treasure rather than have you dual it out. Modern business acumen is to try things, let initiatives play out, but be prepared to change course. Don’t be afraid to admin that you were wrong. This is a common trait of people who are right a lot.
The best loot is free. I guess it’s according to how you define free. Organic growth is always best when possible. Buying customers, buying products, buying teams, etc are all problematic in their own way. Sometimes you do those things so that you can get to market quicker. But when you go into a dungeon and try and take on a stretch goal of killing yourself a giant spider, you’ll get rewarded by great loot. That +2 longsword will do you well. And it’s better to get it that way than to get it in a store.
Sometimes you get a critical miss, sometimes you get a critical hit. In Dungeons and Dragons, if you’re trying to stab a monster, you roll the dice to see if you hit it. There are certain numbers on a dice that might have your character inflicting extra damage, because you hit an artery or something like that. There are other numbers that might cause you to actually stab yourself. There’s a certain amount of chance to everything we do. Maybe a critical miss is to get fired by your biggest customer for something you had no control over. Maybe a critical win is to have your largest deal ever come in during the last couple weeks of a year so the year ends historically awesome sauce. Maybe you ship software with a huge bug. Maybe you have some widgets made and they fall off a cargo ship on the way from China. I’ve seen it all. Sometimes things backfire. The best plan, have a backout plan. And be prepared for the critical hit pushing your business forward a year or two with one deal. If you don’t try, you might not get it!
But Apple says… But Microsoft says… But Google says… I hear this all the time. And the very first thing I often ask is Who at Apple, Microsoft, Google, or whatever vendor says that?
The reason I ask “who” is often because you can get conflicting responses from a vendor for a given question. Why’s that? When an organization gets bigger than 1, there are suddenly more perspectives than just one. When an organization gets bigger than 3, communication starts to get more challenging and it becomes harder and harder to have everyone on the same page. When an organization gets bigger and bigger (500, 10,000, 100,000), not everyone is actually privy to all the pertinent information. Or people don’t know what they can say externally.
Who? Developers. Sales. Systems Engineers. Professional Services. Subject Matter Experts. Managers. Executives. Resellers. Marketing. Professional Services Providers. Office Managers. Channel Managers. Product Managers. Each of these might tell you something different when presented with the same question. A developer might only see a small portion of a larger overall project, as they’re buried in the code of a specific binary, feature, or option. Someone in sales might be representing a feature or function as it’s communicated to them, not being overly technical. Someone in Systems Engineering might communicate the feature as they use it, but not how you plan to use it. Someone in Professional Services would often have exposure in the environments they’ve implemented a feature, but a feature might mean more to them.
And it goes on through the rest of the functions . Who can you trust? No one. Everyone. Yourself. I’ve always maintained that until I see a feature, I don’t trust it. And when it comes to how I plan to implement a feature, I love hearing from an organization how they’d like me to use it. Unless I get a consistent response about what something from a vendor means to me (and even if I do to some extent), I reserve the responsibility of planning what it means to me for the person responsible for the repercussions: me.
I keep saying feature. But I also mean strategy. Strategy can be equally, if not more complicated. Different people at different levels of organizations will have their own perspectives on strategy. And strategy of how you work with a vendor is more important than the tactics of how you implement a given feature. The direction you should be going is yours. Unless you hear otherwise. And then confirm that.
Anyway, what am I getting at with this article? Next time someone tells me “But Google says…” don’t be surprised when I say “who?” And you should say that as well, and judge the messaged based on the who.
In a Tango class recently, I had to follow. I’m much more used to leading, and I kept bumping into people. Not my best moment. But then my instructor said something that turned out to be very wise advice: “close your eyes.” All of a sudden, everything just kicked into place and I was on the other side of a Tango dance, easily imagining how legs can get kicked out and intertwined and how the whole thing just works. It also helped me lead better. I finally understood that you have to be forcefully charging ahead, or you mess up the rhythm of the follower.
The same can be true in business. I used to find that new employees at my old company always had 20 things to tell us that we should be doing better. Most of these things had been tried, or deprecated over time. Many employees came from smaller companies who didn’t need checks, balances, and documentation like we did. Many came from larger companies, who needed a lot of those same checks, balances, and documentation that we did not. Building business processes can be a fine line between not having enough process, and having so much that people can’t get anything done any more, because there aren’t dedicated people (or time for) managing those processes.
The recommendations were sometimes good. But most of the time, after a month or three on staff, the reasons we did things started to make sense and the number of recommendations went down. But those first couple of months could be a challenge, and so when I saw this trend with a new employee I’d always just say “write everything down, and we’ll review it in a couple months – just try it our way for now.”
Once I got into the rhythm of following, I was able to open my eyes. Then, I could show off. Similarly, once my employees got into the rhythm of things, then we could look at their recommendations and see what would make sense for their new job. Some of these recommendations helped to shape the way we did business moving forward, and we were so very glad to have them. But what was gone was all the time spent trying to explain why we chose to do things a certain way. Much simpler for all parties when you can close your eyes and follow, if only for a little while.
I recently read an article that Solaris is a dead OS (or will be rather shortly). I beg to differ, proveded the hardware support is there. Solaris can still multithread better than anyone. Solaris’ ZFS is still the most superior file system available (although before the ReiserFS founder got put in prison for wasting his wife it looked poised for greatness) and the Sun hardware is still best of breed. Sun as a company is also going to be building tighter integration into MySQL, which should help boost numbers.
But the pony-tail-laden chief of Sun definitely has his work cut out for him. There are certain acquisitions that have not been smooth (cough – tape libraries) and still need to get finished up. There’s also the need to find a really good synergy between MySQL and Sun, where the Open Source community can continue to love and leverage MySQL without being forced into Sun products, but still provide a value-add from using Sun products. Hard thing to do. There’s also Java and all the services surrounding it and of course OpenSolaris, which is picking up new converts all the time – but which still lacks the trend setting aspects of Fedora and Ubuntu.
To me it seems that what Sun really needs is an identity. It really seems that there’s a lack of a cohesive vision that encompasses all of the products they have. Take NetApp as an example. They’re a storage vendor. Same with EMC – although EMC has purchased a lot of other companies, those purchases are geared towards driving storage sales. Sun just seems to be blowing around in the winds of a certain economy and IT market, both should be rectified if they are to retain their position in the IT community.
In short, Sun needs to circle the wagons, perhaps divest assets that do not work with the core and reinvest heavily into the core with the increased cash position that would provide. Sun has some of the most talented engineers in the world. They need to retain them and allow them to innovate – in much the same way that Google has allowed their engineers to innovate. Sun also needs to rebuild their sales channel from the ground up, getting away from the monolithic sales strategy and zeroing in on what helps their core – hard to do without really telling the world what your core is. I wish them all the luck, ’cause I love their products (a love that goes back to my Sparc20 days). I don’t think it’s too late, but they need to do something soon or they will end up not surviving.